Thursday 8 May 2014

The final curtain

Before I start on this stream of consciousness, I just want to thank everyone for the mostly-positive reaction to the last post.
As I write, it has had 971 views, which is the second-most of any post on this blog (this is number 194) and is beaten only by the diatribe on Martin Allen before we played Gillingham last season.
The reaction has given me some insight into who actually takes the time to read these ramblings - it would appear that I have directors, current and former club officials and past and present players taking a look as well as the regular fans - so thanks very much.
Anyway, that's another season done and dusted, and the overwhelming feeling is that this is a very good thing, but while it has been one of the most forgettable of our Football League campaigns on and off the pitch, we must learn the lessons from it and ensure that we can get back onto the straight and narrow.
There is a lot to cover in this post, so I am going to separate it up into sections and try to tackle each subject, so here goes...
Dagenham game
It was, quite simply, a season summed up in 90 minutes. Again.
We took the lead, lost it, took the lead again, lost it again and then lost the game, giving away comical goals along the way and maintaining our home malaise in some style.
The only plus point of the game was seeing three teenagers on the pitch, in Joe Hanks, Harry Williams and Zack Kotwica, and they had differing amounts of impact.
Hanks was the pick, setting up the first goal with an excellent whipped-in free-kick, looking composed on the ball and not scared to take responsibility.
In the first 15 minutes, I counted that he had eight touches of the ball and did not waste possession with any of them. He was pointing at more senior players and was first with a pat for Sido after that own goal.
A bit of maturity beyond his years at times, and I think he showed he did not look out of place and that he is ready for more exposure next season.
Williams, in his best role just off Byron Harrison, was busy to start with but faded as the game went on. But again in his games, he has shown promise and a summer on the weights and a decent pre-season will hopefully see him in and around things next season.
On his first start (about six months too late in my view) Zack was disappointing. I thought he struggled to get involved bar one or two promising runs, and I feel he has gone backwards in his development.
If he had started some games in September-October time rather than constant 10-15 minute cameos, I think he would be better off now. He has also suffered from not playing 90 minutes more often this season.
Elsewhere, it was good to see Connor Roberts given a chance, and I felt sorry for him with the own goal. Sido didn't look at all before playing the ball back, but I did think Connor panicked a bit - he could have pushed the ball away, or punched it, or tried to pat it down then kick it afterwards.
It was perfect placement however - Sido curled it perfectly into the corner from almost on the touchline. I bet he could try that 20 times and not repeat it!
The second goal was a deep cross which Connor started to come for, then went back and ended up being beaten through his legs at the near post after two players comically fell over and allowed the centre-half a free run. Our season in a nutshell right there...
For goal three I thought he was unfortunate. He made a good save on to the post but the forward was left with a tap in.
So that was that - and it was a game which, along with most this season, will quickly be erased from the memory.
Managerial contracts
Before that game came the news about the managerial team's long-running contract saga finally being resolved with Neil Howarth's departure and Mark Yates' deal being cut in half to 12 months.
As I said in the last blog, something had to change.
There had been rumblings about the coaching, and clearly this season has not all been sweetness and light on the training field.
I am sure that the directors came to this decision after consulting various people around the club, and it is hoped that a new approach in the dugout will breathe new life into things.
Yates made no secret of the fact that he wasn't happy to see Howarth go, and that is hardly a surprise.
After all they have worked together for nine years with a Trophy final, a play-off final and some Cup runs, but without getting over the line to any real tangible success.
On the outside, they seem like the ideal good cop-bad cop pairing which so often works with a management team, and it is a shame to see Neil go. A decent bloke, and a good servant to the club.
But times have to move on, and I am intrigued to see how a new management team, with a first-team coach and player-coach alongside Yates, will work.
Of course Yates will have a say in who that is, which is quite right as he has to work with him, but I hope the coach comes from outside the club.
Someone with experience, fresh ideas and a new outlook is what we need. Dave Kevan did a decent job while he was here and I would hope the new man might have a similar impact.
But we know Yates can be stubborn - he is the gaffer and what he says goes ultimately, but I hope he will listen and take on board whatever ideas the new coach will bring.
The player-coach looks odds-on to be Steve Elliott, which is great news if it happens.
He has his B licence and is about to do his A, popular with the fans, will command respect from the players and therefore will not be lost to the club on and off the field.
So what of the manager?
I sense the support for him is around 50-50 - at least everyone I speak to who says he deserves one more shot at it is tempered by another person who says he should have gone as well.
He is lucky - kept on mainly by the loyalty of the board, who point to the two play-off campaigns as proof of his credentials and are giving him one more shot.
But this is the last-chance saloon, as the one-year contract suggests. He has, with many fans, lost the credit of those two play-off campaigns, with his detractors saying that he actually failed both times, as we didn't go up.
The league table doesn't lie, and with the 12th-highest budget in the division, we finished 17th, which is underachievement, so he is, without doubt, a man under pressure.
He is the kind of character who will hopefully rise to that.
heI hope  comes out with the 'I'll prove you wrong' mentality and sticks his critics' words back down their throats, but he has a big summer in store and then probably 12-15 games before the heat will intensify if things are not going well.
In effect, the board have hedged their bets, and put him on trial again. It's back to square one, and he has to prove himself to us all over again - and if he fails the trial, there are not two two-year contracts to be paid off.
As I wrote last week, I was stunned when Scott Brown came out with his words at Rochdale about the two training ground non-tryers.
They let him down, along with the rest of the team, the manager, board and also the fans, and thanks to Jon Palmer and the Echo, we now know who they are.
Jon and the Echo were quite right to name them. I know you all think I am bound to say that, but we have a right to know as fans of the club who these players were.
For the record, I didn't know who they were until the Echo's story, and I was totally wide of the mark with my suspicions over their identities - as was everyone else, hence the Echo's decision to reveal their names.
I was surprised, as over the season a lack of effort is, I feel, not something you could accuse these two players of. A lack of quality at times most definitely, but not a lack of effort.
The finger of suspicion was falling on others, which was not fair on those who were being blamed, especially the player being sung about in the LMI during the Dagenham game.
I am sure the club are not happy the names have come out, as I suspect they were hoping the storm would blow over and by next season it would have been largely forgotten about, and maybe with the two players still in red and white.
Overall, I don't feel they handled it very well.
The chairman came out and talked about the players never playing again, and how it may be a reason not to renew contracts.
Then the manager, after explaining the situation, appeared to play it down, and having played the pair at Rochdale did so again against Dagenham, before they were named.
A statement saying who the players are, with an apology from them stating that it won't happen again and they are fully committed to the club might have done the trick. Not all fans of course would have accepted that, but it would have a start.
In JP's story, one of them was 'poised to sign a new contract', while the other has a contract due to his appearances clause. So much for not playing for the club again, or not having a contract renewed.
In that case though, I suspect the contract was on the table before this brouhaha erupted, and since the naming, the manager has stated he might not sign it as he is upset about nasty comments on Twitter.
I don't know what he expected. People were not just going to turn round and say 'It's okay, you admitted you weren't putting it in, but we don't mind, so have a new contract on good money,' now were they?
So the attitude therefore seems to be, they have found out who I am, they are having a go at me, so I am off - rather than stuff you lot, I am signing again and I am going to play my heart out for you next season and win you round again.
It seems a convenient little escape clause for him.
To be honest, I am not fussed either way if he stays or not, and if I had to make a choice either way, it would probably be better if he went elsewhere, and we could draw a line under this little episode.
Finally, and to try and add some perspective, I went to Rod Burge's funeral last week and spoke to a couple of our ex-players about this (they were trying to get the gossip from me... but I had none!)
One of them, a real crowd favourite and someone who you could rely on for 100 per cent every time, admitted that he would sometimes not put his all in during those Friday sessions, and he was not alone in that.
He said players know they are in the side for Saturday, don't want an injury and don't want to use up all their energy, leaving themselves running on empty for the game.
But crucially, he said that if the manager was to ask him if he was putting it all in, of course the answer would be yes - and when a certain S. Cotterill was your manager that is hardly a surprise - which begs the million dollar question - why on earth did these two say no when Yates asked them the question...?
The retained list
I could never be a football manager for many reasons, but one of the biggest would be because of the job of having to tell players they are not good enough, or they are not getting a new contract.
You are playing God with people's livelihoods and either crushing the dreams of young players or consigning more experienced pros to the scrapheap and maybe forcing them to get a proper job.
Not pleasant, but a necessary part of the season for a manager like Yates who needs to find some leeway in his budget to try and re-shape an underachieving squad into one which can be more competitive next time round.
Regarding the out of contract players, I thought he got the decisions right.
Sam Deering, Ashley Vincent and Ed Williams all looked pretty clearcut, with Deering's omission last Saturday rubberstamping his fate while the other two never looked likely to be kept.
Deering played nearly 80 games, largely in an attacking role, and did not score a goal, and rarely set one up either.
There was no faulting his effort or work-rate in my view, but having had a lot of chances, it is time to move on, and maybe he can get the form back he showed at Barnet with another club.
Vincent's move didn't work out for whatever reason. We saw flashes of form, but they were extremely brief, and it wasn't until February that he started a match, so good luck to him and I hope he gets regular football somewhere.
I feel a little bit sorry for Ed Williams as he has some ability but was maybe a victim of circumstance and never got a chance anywhere near the first team. I hope he goes off and proves a success somewhere.
The contentious ones were Sido Jombati and Jamie Cureton.
Shane Duff got a newspaper column out of my tweet about Sido after the decision was announced, and a good piece it was too.
Mark Yates was right in his interview when he said that Sido looked like a Championship player when he came on the scene. He did - and I had thoughts that we might make some money out of him.
He became a cult hero, but he hasn't kept up that form, and has become very prone to mistakes this season. I know he is not the only one who has messed up, but his errors seem to have been more calamitous than most, getting more ridiculous as they went on, capped off by Saturday's own goal.
I think Yates gradually lost trust in him. Towards the end of the season, he dropped him and put Mitch Brundle, an 18-year-old loanee who had never played right back before, in his place, then shunted Sido to left back.
That spoke volumes, and although he restored him to right back towards the end, I think the writing was on the wall. Sido should get another league club, and if they get the 2011-12 vintage, they have a top player on their hands. Big if though I feel.
And so to Cureton.
I was 50-50 on this one, as he had 11 goals in 24 starts and had started to link up with Byron, plus I thought his knowledge would be ideal for Bobbie Dale, a young kid coming through to rub off on.
But I can see why Yates' reasons why he has elected to go the other way, and this was the most borderline decision of all.
He wants a younger squad. Yes, I get that one.
He has tried to accommodate two strikers when one would be better. True again, and Jamie does not suit the lone role these days in my view.
Those who think he should have stayed point to lack of service, and say he wasn't used right.
OK, so he could have started more games, and he was better when he did as I never felt he had any impact off the bench, but I don't subscribe wholly to the 'lack of service' argument.
He scored 11 goals in 24 starts, and missed presentable chances in other games, notably at Northampton, Exeter, Scunthorpe and Tamworth - chances which all proved crucial as we either drew or lost those games.
I am in no way saying the misses were totally responsible for those results, but if he got 'no service' then how did he get those goals or chances? Someone must have set them up for him as he didn't make them all himself.
New contract offers to Hanks, Elliott and Brown are spot on, and I hope they all sign them as soon as possible. I think Brown's decision will also prompt a decision on Connor Roberts. I hope he stays too, but we will see.
The Jermaine McGlashan situation has been discussed above, and we will see what transpires there.
As for the contracted players, Jason Taylor is on the list, which is no surprise as he has been out of the 18 lately and his move here has not worked, so it is better that he moves on.
There is a slight mystery as JP tweeted on Tuesday that two players were going on the list, but only Taylor has, thus far.
The identity of the other potential listee, if it happens, seems to be a head-to-head fight between Craig Braham-Barrett (see non-tryers gate above) and Terry Gornell, who in my view has not had a proper crack of the whip.
I am a fan of Terry and hope he gets more opportunities to play in his best role - up front - rather than as an attacking midfielder, which does not suit him.
He has scored goals at this level and I think he will do so again given the chance. Maybe next season.
The other players kept give us something to work with as a nucleus to build from - Troy Brown had a decent season, Matt Richards was in my view not as bad as people have made out and does not deserve the treatment he has had from some fans, and Byron Harrison deservedly took player of the year accolades.
When Browny re-signs (please...) we have a spine, and now it is up to Yates to go out and embellish that with new arrivals.
I think Brown is the most important contract renewal we need to fall our way. His rant at Rochdale has elevated him to almost God-like status with some fans and he is a reliable keeper at this level.
It would be very difficult to go out and find someone of equivalent ability to come in and replace him, and would also rob the club of a real talisman and one of the few players with a real connection to the supporters.
Yates has gone as far as he could given the number of players out of contract, and those with deals, and of course there is no guarantee that the four offers will be accepted.
Some would have liked him to go further maybe, while others are unhappy with decisions on certain players.
But we need change. Practically every fan has said this season that the squad is not good enough and wants 'big changes' - yet they moan when Yates makes those changes and decides not to keep players on. I can imagine the reaction if every player had been kept on...
As it is, we could still have four of the first-choice back five which let in the third-most goals in the division and was partly or largely responsible for losing 37 points after being ahead, so it's not revolution, more an evolution.
Summer shopping list
So now focus turns to the summer, and what Yates needs to do to the squad.
First, lets see what we have got (italics mean offered contracts/future uncertain, new pros underlined).
Goalkeepers: Brown, Roberts
Defenders: Braham-Barrett, Elliott, T Brown
Midfielders: Richards, Hanks, Powell, Bowen, Williams, Kotwica, McGlashan, Taylor
Forwards: Harrison, Gornell, Dale
So, including the four new pros, we definitely have 10 players and potentially 16 if the four with contracts plus Roberts all stay, and no-one wants Taylor. we have been told we will have a bigger squad, so say that is 24 players, we are looking for a minimum of maybe eight and a maximum of possibly 14 new faces.
Obviously, if Brown and Roberts stay, we won't need a goalkeeper but could end up hunting for two new ones, or one senior to join Roberts, or a new back-up for Brown depending on how things pan out.
Defensively we will need a right back for definite, and at least one centre-half, as if Elliott takes the coaching job I cannot see him being a regular (15-20 games maybe?) and I know I would not be alone in hoping Yates will be looking for a left back as well.
The manager's comments about accommodating two strikers when maybe he didn't want to points to his desire to go back to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 which produced the best performances of his reign in that glorious autumn of 2011.
So we need some midfielders. That midfield had the passing ability of Pack, the bite and bustle of Penn and the box-to-box engine of Summerfield - and he has to clone those three somehow, which will be his biggest challenge of the summer. They need to be players who can weigh in with goals.
Harrison will be first choice as the focal point, and Yates needs to find the pair to support him. A left-sided winger/forward in the Kaid mould plus a right-sided version as well - and I am sure he will want another out-and-out forward.
A big list and a big challenge, and already the retained lists from other clubs have started to filter out and already there are some interesting names being thrown around.
I am not directly advocating any of these as targets, but Christian Ribeiro (Wales international right back, released by Scunthorpe, who comes from Stroud), ex-Plymouth midfielder Luke Young, our perennial target Jack Midson and our transfer-listed U-turning favourite Ashley Grimes are among those looking around for the clubs, so there are players out there and more will become available as more clubs make decisions.
Happy hunting Mark!
And finally...
Like most CTFC fans, I am glad to see the back of that season, and hope the next one will be better.
But while 17th in the table was not the finish what we all wanted, a much bigger football club 40 miles south of us with 94 years in the Football League were relegated.
I think that puts into perspective what an achievement it is for our club to be looking forward to a 16th season in the 92 (even if we could be playing Wigan's B side soon if Mr Dyke has his way, but let's hope that doesn't happen...!)
That doesn't mean however that we can just sit still and stagnate - I want the club to thrive and progress as much as everyone else, and here is my wishlist for next season and beyond:
1. Less negativity - I am sick of it. Yes, it has been a poor season on the field, we all know that without having to be reminded about it 24-7.
But I am fed up of the negativity and constant drip, drip, drip of moaning about everything and anything to do with the club. I appreciate that much of the mood comes from what we have seen on the pitch, but this is not a new phenomenon - they just seem to be shouting louder when the team is doing badly.
Recently, there have been far too many people only too happy to tell everyone that they are not buying a season ticket for next season because of what was apparently the 'worst season in living memory'. Fine. Your decision to spend your money how you like, but there is nothing big and clever about announcing it on social media.
Also, there are far too many people running down anything the club tries to do. Now, I know they don't do everything right all the time, but no one does. Everyone makes mistakes.
The latest one has been those having a dig about the recent fans' panel. Those who joined are arse-lickers and it is all a farce apparently.
Any Cheltenham fan could have applied to the club to be part of it, and I decided to as I want to help the club. I was actually refreshed to see a number of faces I had never met before. It wasn't the same old faces, and there were a number of criticisms and suggestions put forward which will hopefully, down the line, benefit all fans.
Then today the club announced a family excellence award. Some of the comments on the club's Facebook page about it were just childish and embarrassing, and those who wrote them need to take a look at themselves. And so it goes depressingly on.
2. No scapegoats - Now, I am aware that fans have players they like, and players they don't. I am the same.
But every season it seems there has to be a scapegoat. One player who gets it in the neck all the time, and cannot 'win' however well they might play, and who gets the blame for the team's failings even if not directly responsible.
Danny Andrew, Jeff Goulding, Junior Smikle and now Matt Richards have all held the mantle, and I am sick of it.
I am not sure what purpose it serves for people to single out one player above all others. A team wins together, and it loses together.
Players make individual mistakes in games, but having seen 42 league games this season and all of our Cup games, I cannot say that Richards made more mistakes than anyone else, and played any worse than anyone else.
I have seen the abuse thrown at him justified by claims that he was hyped up when he signed as Pack's replacement. Hyped up by who? I cannot remember anyone saying that at all.
Presumably, people saw him come from a higher level on a two-year contract, with many believing he is towards the top of the wage bill (I have no idea if he is or not). They don't believe he has justified that. Fair enough, but that's not justification for abuse in my book.
People often say 'if he wears a Cheltenham shirt I will support him' - but seemingly it is not always the case.
3. Look forward, not back - Like the one above, I know everyone has favourite players and managers from the past, but that's where they are - in the past.
Players come, players go, but the most important thing is the future of the club.
People like Russ Penn, Keith Lowe, Marlon Pack, Luke Summerfield, Alan Bennett and Kaid Mohamed served us well, and the decision to let some of them go was maybe not the right one at the time.
But we have to move on, while I am not saying we should forget what they have done and what they contributed, constantly harking back and using their memory as a stick to beat the current players and manager is, frankly, becoming tiresome to me.
Like the negativity, it wouldn't be happening had we fared better on the pitch this season, so let's hope for better results and maybe the current and incoming players will get the focus and the wistful reminiscences can stop.
4. Fans and players united - This is the most important thing on my wishlist.
This club had its' most successful period between 1997 and 2002, and a big part of that was that we managed to create the perfect storm of board, management team, players and fans who were all pulling in the same direction.
We have never had that since then, so maybe it is not a coincidence that we have not recaptured that momentum again.
At the fans' panel recently, many people commented about the detachment of the players from the fans, and the need to get that back. It is crucial.
Times have changed. It's not like the days when players came in the bar and had a beer with the fans any more. Many of them don't drink (or aren't supposed to...) or live a distance away so want to see family after games.
Events like the open day in July and the barbecue for season ticket holders at Seasons are important then to try to establish some sort of link between fans and players.
The fans will be up for it, but the players must be too. They must not just huddle in a group together mumbling two words to fans.
They have to engage with them, be interested in talking to them - not like the end of season two years ago when they came into the main bar, stood in a huddle in the middle for 10 minutes then scuttled off again having barely said a word to anyone.
Little things matter to fans. Applauding them after games, home and away, win or lose (this goes for the manager too), signing autographs, posing for pictures, and above all just playing with a smile on their face rather than a grimace like this squad have for a large part of the season. Things like that will endear players to fans
Too often, they have looked to get off the pitch as quickly as they can. They need to remember they are there for the fans, not the other way round.
More connection between players and fans will not necessarily win us matches, but it might make for a better general atmosphere about the place.
5. More atmosphere - The million dollar question... how to get more noise at Whaddon...
Win more games for a start, yes that might do the trick, but some clubs don't win much, yet have fans who make decent noise at games.
Crystal Palace for a start - and yes, I know, there are a lot more of them, but you get my drift. At our level, Accrington and Aldershot are two sets of home fans who give it a decent shot.
The usual excuse is 'we will sing when there is something to sing about'. Sorry, I don't hold with that.
I used to stand in the Paddock in the 80s and 90s when we yo-yoed between the Southern League Premier and lower divisions.
There wasn't much to sing about most weeks, and about 800 in the ground, but we sung. Even if we lost 7-0 at home to Redbridge Forest or beat Corby Town 8-0, we sung.
I know what you are saying - he is looking back at the past, exactly what he has just told us not to do, the bloody hypocrite...
Maybe, but I am trying to make the point that atmosphere does not always have to be defined by what is on the pitch. A rousing few songs before kick off and in the early few minutes can give the team a good lift, then you just carry it on.
All it needs is someone to get it started. We had Middy usually, and we followed his lead, having a good laugh, and getting behind the team.
The Wymans crew gave it a shot - but where are they? (even the chairman asked this at the fans' panel) Again, I suspect the results haven't helped, but the ground needs a lift, and it needs someone to get it started, so at the risk of coming over all Delia on you all, come on Wymans, where are you? let's be having you...
Someone needs to start a singing group or section again, and get some vocal support going next season. Whether it is in the LMI, the Paddock or the In2Print, I hope it happens. And if people tell you to shut up, i
just ignore them. They used to tell us to shut up back in the day and we just got on with it.
We all support the same team apparently, so let's try and concentrate that and stop bickering between ourselves.
I know some fans want to watch the game and support their own way, but respect those who want to be more vocal, and sing or drum - and vice versa.
Those who want to sing, chant and drum are not drunken hooligans in the same way that those who don't want to make lots of noise are Baker's puppets or happy clappers. Mutual respect - let people support in their own way. If people want to sing, let them. If people don't, fine.
But one request for any singers next season - just slow the songs down a bit, especially the Tractor Song... Thanks.

Have a good summer!

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